Speech to Mark the 150th Anniversary of Mount Sackville Secondary School
Chapelizod, Dublin, 10th March 2015
Tá an-áthas orm bheith anseo in bhur measc chun páirt a ghlacadh i bhur gceiliúradh. Míle buíochas daoibh as an gcuireadh agus as an fáilte a chuir sibh romham.
I am delighted to join you this morning to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Mount Sackville Secondary School, founded in 1864 by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Cluny. May I thank your principal, Ms. Eileen Higgins, and your deputy-principal, Ms. Deirdre Hickey, for the kind invitation to come here today, and all of you for the warm welcome to your school.
May I also thank Sarah Kinsella, one of your transition year students, who coincidentally spent last week with us at Áras an Uachtaráin, and who helped in the preparation of my remarks by sharing her insights on Mount Sackville.
Saint Anne Marie Javouhey [1779-1851], the French nun who founded the Cluny Sisters in 1807, was an extraordinary woman. She lived through the troubled and exciting times of the French Revolution, working tirelessly to give children an education. The scope of her congregation soon expanded to include missionary work in West Africa, South America, India, and several Indian Ocean islands. Today, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny work in over 60 countries across all continents.
As the students here are aware, Anne Marie Javouhey is sometimes called the “liberator of the slaves”, in reference to the self-supporting colony she established in the locality of Mana, French Guiana, where she presided over the emancipation of several hundreds of slaves. Determined to prove that freedom can only be effective if grounded in moral and financial autonomy, she strove to enable the former slaves to learn a trade and make a living for themselves and their families from their work.
This school is fortunate in its inspirational founding figure, one whose humane precepts and values remain at the heart of Cluny education. For Ireland as a whole, it was of course good fortune to welcome the Cluny Sisters in the 1860s, at a time when there was scarce provision for the secondary education of girls in our country.
Today Mount Sackville Secondary School offers a rich curriculum delivered in such a manner as to raise the interest of students in the world around them and encourage them to engage with it in an open and prejudice-free fashion.
The inclusive ethos that prevails here means that harmonious relations are encouraged between students, who come from diverse social and cultural backgrounds, and who may subscribe to a variety of personal beliefs. Indeed I am aware that 15 different religions are currently represented in Mount Sackville.
The distinctive feature of this school lies in its balancing of academic achievement, extra-curriculum activities, and an emphasis on the concept of global justice. The combination of these three elements contributes greatly to the formation of pupils and their development into well-rounded persons. In doing this Mount Sackville remains true to the principles of Anne Marie Javouhey, who urged Cluny educators to “raise education to as high a degree of perfection as possible.”
A good education is surely one that opens onto a wide range of activities and skills, beyond the – no less important – competencies instilled through the core curriculum. There is a wealth of such activities at Mount Sackville. For example, you have a vibrant Debating and Public Speaking Club, and I would like to wish the very best to the five students who have qualified for the prestigious National European Youth Parliament final, this weekend.
I myself remember fondly participating, as a university student, in the Irish Times Debating Competition. The ability to prepare for debate and to articulate clearly one’s ideas and convictions is one that requires both incisiveness and work. The will to engage with others through robust but respectful verbal communication, the capacity to distinguish informed arguments from shallow slogans and to develop a respect and love for the accuracy of words – these are skills that retain their full significance in our age of digital media and instant communication.
Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil baill Chlub Drámaíocta na scoile ar aon intinn maidir le chumhacht na reitirice. I mian liom an deis seo a thapú comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis an Chlub as ucht an chéad áit ag Féile Drámaíocht Uile-Éireann don dráma is fearr i nGaeilge a bhuachain anuraidh lena léiriú dár teideal ‘Aghaidh fidil,’. Molaim sibh as ucht béime a leagadh, ar bheallach chomh ealaíonta agus chomh láidir, ar an tionchar uafásach a bhíonn ag cibearbhulaíocht ar shaolta dhaoine óga.
[This awareness of the power of language is, I know, shared by the members of the school’s Drama Club. May I seize this opportunity to congratulate the Club for their production entitled ‘Aghaidh fidil, which won the prize for best play in the Irish language at the All-Ireland Drama Festival last year. I commend you for managing to highlight in such compelling artistic form the devastating impact that cyber bullying can have on the lives of young people.]
Of course there are many more activities, and a profusion of other talents being tempered in Mount Sackville – not least in the school’s two choirs and on its sports’ fields. Past pupil Virgina Kerr, for example, who is currently one of Ireland’s most distinguished sopranos, readily acknowledges how her love for music was nurtured during her time at Mount Sackville.
As for the students’ achievements in sports, from rowing to basketball and cross-country, it would take time to list them all.
I was delighted to learn that your school has just been awarded the “Active School” flag by the Department of Education, in recognition of its promotion of physical activity and its emphasis on a beneficial balance between the activities of the body and those of the mind.
Finally, Mount Sackville is unique in that it challenges students to engage with the injustices at play in the world and to develop an awareness of and concern for the most vulnerable both at home and abroad.
I understand that last year, the students focused their fundraising efforts on the Haiti school project undertaken by “Thinking Development,” a post-disaster reconstruction NGO set up by Linda O’Halloran, a former pupil of Mount Sackville. This complemented the major fundraising conducted by the Sisters of Cluny, who managed to raise 1 million euro to rebuild the Congregation’s schools, destroyed in Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.
This year, your emphasis is on Sierra Leone, and in particular on the training of teachers in that country. I know that your “Project 150” is well underway, having been presented to the Parents’ Association last week. I commend the transition year students who have worked on compiling resources for the teaching of science, an important building block in this project.
May I salute the two Sisters who are here with us from Sierra Leone and who will be going back there later this year. May I also take this opportunity to acknowledge all the Sisters in attendance this morning, who spent their lives working alongside communities in Africa and the West Indies. During our recent visit to Africa, my wife Sabina and I have seen at first-hand the impressive work carried out by Irish missionaries and nuns on the continent, and, as President of Ireland, I thank you very warmly for your service.
Mar fhocal scoir, I wish to congratulate all the teachers and staff of Mount Sackville for their commitment to fully nurture and support all of the girls in their care so that they may grow and flourish. When I look around me this morning, when I see this school thriving with over 630 girls, when I witness the vibrant academic and spiritual environment you offer them – it is clear to me that the principles that guided Anne Marie Javouhey’s work are alive and well.
I thank you all, once again, for inviting me to be part of your 150th anniversary celebrations. I have no doubt that all of you who study and who teach here will continue, in the years ahead, to make this institution the happy and productive learning community that it so clearly is.
Is iontach an obair atá ar siúl agaibh. Go raibh maith agaibh go léir.
 These schools provide free classes for poor students, including evening classes for those children who work in the day.